Meet Honouliuli National Historic Site’s First Superintendent
The granddaughter of internment camp survivors talks about what’s next for Hawai‘i’s largest internment camp site, her own journey through history and how an order at a Honolulu Starbucks helped the Idaho native feel at home in the Islands.
I got Hanako Wakatsuki-Chang on the phone just three days after she arrived in Hawai‘i. It wasn’t her first trip here; she visited multiple times when her sister and brother-in-law were based at Schofield, and she even worked at Pearl Harbor National Memorial from October 2020 to February 2021. But this flight was significant. It was the first time she filled in the “resident” bubble on the Hawai‘i Tourism Authority’s survey.
Wakatsuki-Chong’s great-grandmother was born in Hawai‘i then moved to the Mainland. Wakatsuki-Chong grew up in Idaho, where she most recently led the interpretation, education and outreach programs at Minidoka National Historic Site, an internment camp in the desert that held 10,000 Japanese Americans from 1942 to 1945. The stories from inside that camp are similar to those of her own family. Wakatsuki-Chong’s grandparents were sent to a camp in Manzanar, California—her great-aunt wrote the well-known memoir Farewell to Manzanar—and had three children within its barriers. It’s not a history her grandmother ever spoke about, even when a young Wakatsuki-Chong was prompted by her father to ask. “As an adult, I understand I hit a nerve,” she says, adding her family never talked about their time there. “Now, when I work with community members who are survivors, I know better about how to get their stories without pushing them over the edge. We want to preserve the history without retraumatizing people.”
Honouliuli was named a national monument in 2015, which is the designation given to places where the National Park System is working to preserve at least one significant resource. National Historic Sites are smaller with fewer attractions than National Parks. See the full list of definitions at nps.gov.
Diving deeper into the personal histories of Honouliuli is just part of the new superintendent’s job. Wakatsuki-Chong signed on as site director in November when inventories of the flora and fauna, old infrastructure and the landscape were already ongoing. In a few years, the public will have a chance to weigh in on what it wants for the camp. Besides determining what the Park Service can manage, Wakatsuki-Chong’s background in interpretive history will help her determine the narrative and context of the site’s stories that will guide the plans for the next few decades. “How are we going to talk about the POWs? How are we going to talk about the complicated nature with the issei and nisei who were incarcerated? And because Honouliuli was actually designated to be a representative for all the other consignment sites in Hawai‘i for the Japanese Americans … how are we going to tell the story of Sand Island, Kīlauea Military Camp and the Maui County Jail? And then how are we going to learn about how the Native Hawaiians used this land before it was used for the incarcerations?”
She’s humbled by the responsibility and excited to live in a place where no one asks where she is from, calls her a Jap—through ignorance or otherwise—or comments on the smell of her bulgogi lunch (her mom is Korean). Even a trip to a local Starbucks was a revelation: The barista knew how to spell Hanako without any help. “Experiencing something different and always feeling welcome, this seems like a good place for me,” she says.
More than 1,000 articles about the Japanese American experience during World War II were published online in the Densho Encyclopedia in 2017. encyclopedia.densho.org/